I worked and lived in China for three years, and learned a lot that I wouldn’t have expected about the workforce and education in China. Here are 10 things I wish I knew before teaching English in China.
1. Naptime is very important
Chinese people value nap time a lot. This means that most offices will have 12:00-1:00 lunch, then 1:00-2:00 optional nap at your desk. This is awesome because you don’t get penalties for taking the nap, but also means that if you want a meeting at 1:00 pm, good luck. I had many students say they were free then forget to meet with me because they were asleep.
2. Your students could be at any level
When teaching in China, you may work with students who don’t even know hello in English, or students who are fairly fluent. If you have never spoken to a 6-year old that can’t speak a lick of English… it’s tough. They are just barely grasping their native language and then are expected to start learning yours.
Children are information absorbers, so they learn quickly, but it can be frustrating when they respond in Chinese and you just don’t know how to help, or when they can’t quite figure out what you mean, even with all the gesturing and props in the world.
3. Your students might be older than you
When you first get to China, you may have an idea of who you’re teaching, but if you don’t stay at the same job the whole time, or work at a training center that’s grabbing as many students as it can, you could end up teaching children as young as 2 or 3, or working professionals trying to improve their English for business reasons.
Many people are even hired to teach English at local universities, where the students would be quite fluent already. This means the content and style in which you teach may vary wildly. The vocabulary your student needs, and their interests, may very quickly surpass “what’s your favorite color” and you may find yourself getting questions about anything from technical business terms, to how to date a foreigner.
4. Student-Teacher relationships are different
People often state that student-teacher relationships are different because there is a unique respect that Chinese students have for teachers. I’d say this is generally true, but depending on your exact job, your relationship with your students might be more complex.
If you work with adults, they may ask you to grab dinner as a kind gesture, or go out for drinks! Parents of your young students may do this too. If you’re teaching smaller classes especially, finding friendship in teachers is something students may hope for, especially if their exposure to other native English speakers is limited.
5. Most of their teachers haven’t taught in English
This one threw me for a loop. If you meet a student who has studied English for years, you may be surprised by some of the seeming entry-level mistakes. Or you may be shocked when you read their writing, not sure how it came from the same student who stutters over every word.
This is because local English teachers drill vocabulary and then teach grammar mostly in Chinese. Students rarely have verbal English conversation, instead just memorizing and presenting speeches. This means their writing tends to be stronger than their speaking, almost in all cases. It also means it isn’t uncommon that when you meet their English teacher, you’re surprised that their verbal English is quite poor too.
6. Culture shock isn’t what I thought it was
My impression of what culture shock would be like was really skewed. I never thought about the small minutiae of everyday life or the pure frustration that starting up in a new place could bring.
Because I didn’t expect this kind of culture shock, I didn’t really realize or understand why I was constantly frustrated and stressed out in my first few months, whether it was setting up wifi, or any time i had to deal with the bank. Not knowing the language was frustrating, but being run around to apartments I hated at prices I felt were unreasonable was uncomfortable.
I learned I had to be both patient and stubborn, and that I could learn the system, at least a little, and get what I needed. For example, after 4 or 5 rounds of apartment hunting over 3 years, I think I finally managed to figure out how to haggle for rent prices, find apartments with the amenities I desired, and not settle too much.
7. If I can get away with not knowing Chinese… I will
This is more of a personal one, but I think it may be relevant. If you don’t know any Chinese ahead of time, and are stressed and busy when you first move, you most likely will have to learn how to get along without it.
For my first year or two, I could say “this” and “that” and I knew my numbers, but not much else. And I survived. Which was good and bad. This made me super unmotivated to learn, and my busy schedule just reinforced my laziness.
It took a lot of effort, but I’m finally learning. I hired a private tutor (we had tutors offered at our company, but they kept quitting, and I kept getting the same intro to pinyin lesson for about 3 months before giving up).
Now I’m (kind of) conversational and really motivated to learn more, even after leaving China. I continue to practice daily and have hopes of taking the HSK4 exam next year.
8. Teaching English is a real job
This is something I honestly expected more of on my trips back home over the years. But still, it did seem that many people back home thought I wasn’t doing a real job, or that my time in China was a gap-year, more for fun and travel than anything else.
A lot of people were genuinely shocked when I told them I was staying longer, and when I mentioned how much I actually worked (which was a lot). People tend to have a very specific impression of working abroad, especially teaching English, and over time I learned to ignore the potential judgment. This is my life. I work hard, pay bills, save money. Teaching English in China is also respected by locals because you are bringing value skills to them.
The thing that I felt was often hardest for people to grasp is that it’s not a pause, it is three actual years of my real life that I’ve spent working hard. But for some, real life is settling down in the suburbs, not living as far away from your friends and family as physically possible.
Honestly, I see where they are coming from. I don’t think I knew what my time teaching and living in China would mean to me when I left. Now I consider those years a part of a journey that hasn’t ended. Traveling and working abroad is probably something that will always be a part of my life.
9. You can’t learn teaching through TEFL
I needed a TEFL certification to get my visa because I was less than two years out of college and had no formal teacher training. Most companies will pay you to get yours when you arrive.
But honestly, a one-week crash course on teaching only gets you so far. In my case, my job was a bit off-center of teaching, though it was in education, so the TEFL experience wasn’t particularly useful. I found that it was a good bonding experience with the co-worker I went to the training with, but other than that I found little value.
I think any job you may have in China, teaching included, will be one that you learn a lot about on the job. Even if you have teaching experience, the way that teaching centers and schools work will be different from what you’re used to, so don’t expect all of your training and experience to easily transfer.
10. Major Holidays are crazy times to travel
I guess this is sort of true everywhere, but it seems even more true in China.
The Mid Autumn Festival and The Spring Festival will likely award you at least a week off of work. You, and the entire rest of the country. If you’re lucky, you’ll get even more time for Spring Festival since most schools are closed.
This means a lot of people are traveling. Some areas are super busy and crowded, and others are ghost towns. Newer cities aren’t really “home” to as many families, so those cities tend to empty out and don’t really have many holiday celebrations.
Older cities can be incredibly packed, and traveling to nearby destinations in Southeast Asia are also very popular. No matter what, flights and hotels are more expensive at these times, so have fun with your holiday time, but book early!
A rewarding experience
Working in China as a teacher was an incredibly unique and rewarding experience. While there are some insights I wish I knew before-hand, this was a part of the valuable process of being an expat in China, even when the lessons were tough.